My first novel, We Hold These Truths—and its colorful protagonist Al Carpenter—was conceived as I sat in the back of a black Tahoe during a long trip home after a campaign stop in western North Carolina. We had a strong sense in that campaign—the candidate, his family, and his diminutive staff—that the outcome of our sleepy little U.S. Senate Democratic primary race would reverberate in ways most people didn’t (and didn’t care to) understand. The basic question we asked of ourselves, and voters, is whether we’d continue the fight made winnable by our actions in 2008, or just wait for change to, as the candidate was fond of saying, “roll in on the wheels of inevitability.” Change, by the way, never does that.
Despite an impressive showing, we lost that race quite handily; but the bigger losers were progressivism and the promise of expanded access to opportunity, the twin causes for which we’d spent so many months fighting. If asked, a good number of astute political commentators will tell you that the outcome of the 2010 election cycle—the first since ‘08—was critical in explaining why president Obama’s first term fell so far below the high bar we all set for America in ‘08. I’ve listened to many of these commentators, and their arguments are heartbreakingly similar to those we made on the campaign trail day after day back in ‘10.
I’m pretty sure it was somewhere around 4:30 a.m. of my second consecutive all-nighter as a first-year lawyer in New York City that I came to the equal-parts terrifying and soothing realization that I’d probably chosen the wrong career. But I still contend, as I did while drinking my 10th cup of joe that morning, that there were important life credits to be earned in law school, Big Law, and the manic-depressive lifestyle required to stay above water in the Big Apple.
Since leaving that whole law thing, I’ve been asked some variation of the following question at a freakishly consistent clip: “Well what did you take away from your experience with Big Law?” There are two answers to this question (well, technically just one, but you’ll have to humor me), and as I always do whenever a question prompts two answers, I respond first with the funnier, and hopefully more morbid, of the two: “Before telling you what I took away, let me first tell you what it took from me…my weekends, my youth, a decent percentage of my hair pigmentation and most—but to be sure, not all—of my lingering immaturity.” And what did I take away? An almost complete fearlessness and belief that I can, with focus, hard work, and by God, do anything.
In an ironic twist of fate in October 2014, that same fearlessness birthed the fortitude that made my walk away from the law and toward my passion feel more like a beginning than an end. On the last day of work, I packed up a middling sized brown box—a veritable graveyard of stock purchase agreements, treatises, and a million totally useless used yellow Post-it notes I just knew I’d need at some point in the future—and began the journey whose goal was to find myself and a voice with which I might rouse at least some of the masses still napping in the afterglow of November 4, 2008. In no time, I found both of them in the thoughts of my younger avatar sitting in the back of that black Tahoe. After a brief fête with some of my closest friends, I Ubered home, opened the long-abandoned Word document I’d created the week after our campaign ended, and I wrote. I read and I wrote with a measure of fury and focus I’d never thought possible. I didn’t stop because I couldn’t. And word by word, sentence by sentence, I witnessed the gestation of a simple story—a thoroughly American story—about a man who discovers that the secret to…well…pretty much everything is knowing that although chess and checkers are played on the same board, most folks don’t know which game is being played.
That’s the secret.
It is my hope that this lesson—and the others young Al Carpenter discovers through his trials, triumphs and tumbles—will open up a new world to young people, a world where possibilities are endless because they’ve learned how the game is played. Having arrived safely from the other side, I can tell you that with this lesson comes confidence, and a fearlessness that refuses to settle for an America in which any of us is granted something less than the one thing America has always purported to guarantee every single citizen: a chance. That’s all. The opportunity to succeed, to leave a mark and to change lives.
It has been said that life is the only classroom that really matters. Gross over-simplification? To the untrained eye, perhaps yes, but lean in a little closer because there’s a lesson to be had. As I packed my life into a U-Haul once more and headed north to New York to begin the practice of law, I vowed to find a way to convince progressive-minded Americans to talk a lot less about hope, and do a lot more about change. Little did I know the answer was in me all along. And in case you’re wondering, I haven’t looked at even one of those Post-it notes…